Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Facebook really wants me to take a trip to Iceland

Over the past few months, I've been getting notifications, updates and advertisements in my Facebook feed such as this:
And this:
And this:
And this:
It's true that I am making another trip you Europe in a couple of weeks (we're going to spend another week at the delightful Austrian Alpine town we discovered two years ago, and we're also going to take an Adriatic cruise out of Venice as well as spend some time exploring Slovenia), so it's possible that my online searches for airfare, hotels, activities and the like have influenced Facebook's advertising algorithms. But why the barrage of advertisements about Iceland? I haven't made any searches on anything Iceland-related.

It's probably just a quirk of the general run-up to summer travel season: airlines, hotels and tour operators are looking for business, and Iceland appears to be the trendy place to visit right now. Among other things, Iceland is a filming location for HBO's popular Game of Thrones series. Furthermore, both of Iceland's major air carriers, Icelandair and WOW, are trying to position the arctic nation as a convenient stopover point between Europe and North America. They actually encourage visitors not to merely change planes in Iceland, but to actually spend a few days there during their trans-Atlantic journey, thereby pumping tourist money into the Icelandic economy. My brother did this a couple of years ago when he flew from Denver to Prague via Iceland.

I'd love to do the same thing one day; Iceland is definitely on my Places to Visit list, and it certainly seems like a logical stopover spot for future trips to Europe. But as of right now, there's really no point in my doing so. There are no direct flights between Houston and Iceland.

The lack of direct flights to Iceland, be they seasonal or year-round, makes Houston something on an anomaly. In recent years both Icelandic carriers have been very aggressive in connecting to US destinations. This is why there are currently flights from Keflavik International Airport to places such as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Portland. Even Anchorage, Alaska has seasonal service to Iceland's main airport. (Domestic carriers American, Delta and United also serve Iceland, but not nearly to the extent that Icelandair and WOW do.)

But not Houston. (Also conspicuously absent from the list of destinations served directly from Keflavik is the busiest airport in North America: Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson. Go figure.)

 if I want to go to Iceland my nearest starting point would be Dallas/Fort Worth, where all of American Airlines, Icelandair and WOW currently provide direct service. However, given that so many European destinations can already be reached from Bush Intercontinental via Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines (Istanbul is technically in Europe...) and United - even Singapore Airlines makes a stop in Manchester - why would I bother going to DFW just so I can make a stop in Iceland on my way to Europe?

So why aren't there any direct flights between Iceland and the USA's fourth-largest city? Maybe Icelandair and WOW think they have the Texas market covered through DFW.  Maybe Houston's on their list of future destinations to serve once they have the right equipment. Maybe their calculations have shown that service to Houston just doesn't make economic sense. Maybe Icelanders just hate Houston. Who knows?

I'm counting down the days to my summer vacation; I will be flying from Houston to Frankfurt on United, where I will transfer to a Lufthansa flight to Venice. Perhaps I'll get a look at Iceland out the window while I'm in route, and I will wave hello.

But until there is nonstop service from Houston to Iceland, I won't be visiting. And that's going to be the case no matter how many advertisements for Iceland pop up in my Facebook feed. 

(Useless fact: if I were of Icelandic descent, my name would be Thomas Horacesson because Iceland uses patronymic names, whereby your last name is your father's first name plus -sson or -sdottir (daughter). Kirby, likewise, would be Kirby Thomasson. His mother's name would be Lori Larrysdottir.)

Friday, June 08, 2018

Thirty years ago today

Sometime in the late afternoon of Wednesday, June 8, 1988, I stepped foot in Ecuador for the very first time.

This wasn't my first trip outside of the United States, by any means. Even at the age of 14, I had already been to Canada and Mexico several times, and I had even taken a trip to Britain and Ireland with my parents just a few years earlier.

But this wasn't a family vacation; we weren't going to Ontario to visit some friends or to Cancún to sit on a beach. We were going to live in an obscure Latin American country for the summer because my father had been awarded a Fulbright fellowship to teach at a couple of universities in Quito. It turned out for me to be a true adventure; an eye-opening, life changing experience.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. Back then, the only way to get to Ecuador was through Miami. In the early hours of Tuesday June 7th my brother, my mother and I took a cab to Hobby Airport, where we boarded a Delta flight to Atlanta and then caught another plane to Miami (why fly directly to Miami when you can save a few bucks by going through Hartsfield...). Imagine our surprise when we got to the Ecuatoriana Airlines counter at MIA and were informed that the airline would not be making a flight to Quito that day; this was our first indication that Ecuadorian civil aviation regarded posted itineraries are mere suggestions. A night in a Miami hotel and one extremely turbulent ride aboard an aging Boeing 707 a day later, I finally found myself in the Andes Mountains.

We lived in apartment on the top floor of what was then the Hotel Los Andes on the eastern ridge of Quito, overlooking the city. Mount Pichincha sat directly in front of us. After every sunset, the city would glow with amber sodium light until the fog crept in from the surrounding peaks and valleys and obscured everything. It was amazing to watch.

We marveled at the ridiculously-low cost of living there (the constant devaluation of the Sucre made everything from groceries to restaurant meals to taxi rides to Spanish lessons dirt cheap for those with dollar-based accounts). We ate out at a different restaurant every night.

Our hotel, as it turned out, was located right behind the British Embassy. Right next to the British Embassy was a bar and restaurant called - go figure! - El Pub. Because it was so close to our hotel, this restaurant became a regular lunch and dinner spot for us.

El Pub's waiter's name was Pepe. We got to know him very well. And even though we had memorized the dessert menu simply because we had been there so often, we would always ask him to repeat it, because we liked the way he struggled to pronounce the word "cheesecake." (Pepe would always say "chiz-KEK.") My brother and I thought it was funny. My mom thought we were being assholes for making him say it.

My brother and I enrolled to the One-to-One Spanish School close to downtown Quito which, as its name implies, featured a student-to-teacher ratio of 1:1. I probably will never speak Spanish any better than I did that summer, as I spent several hours every day practicing, conversing and learning new vocabulary with my personal instructor.

Sure, there was culture shock and homesickness. Many an afternoon, after One-to-One clases were over, I would walk over to the "mercado negro" section of the Santa Clara Market to purchase "illicit" American goods (for example, an exhorbitantly-priced can of Dr.  Pepper out of a 12-pack somebody brought down from Miami, or a bag of M&Ms) before taking a taxi home. (We took taxis everywhere; Quito did not have a mass transit system other than buses, which were smoky and crowded and they never completely stopped at intersections so you had to get a "running start" to get on or jump off.) Sometimes after I got back to the hotel I'd open a window and sip my illicit imported soft drink and stare out over the city of Quito, waiting for dad to return and longing to be back home in Houston, where the climate probably was hot, but where the water was drinkable and the people spoke English.

Quito did not have a real McDonald's in 1988. I really could have used an occasional Quarter Pounder and some fries as comfort food back then.

We didn't drink the tap water in Quito; it was lethal unless it was boiled. We used Güitig mineral water for everything, including brushing our teeth. Even so, I ended up with more stomach ailments in one summer than most people should endure in a lifetime; amoxicillin and imodium became my gastrointestinal friends.

We took trips around the country. Lots of trips.

We took a trip up to the slopes of Mount Cotopaxi, the iconic volcano south of Quito. We drove above the snow line, and my brother and I had a snowball fight.

We went to the Mitad del Mundo monument that marks the location of the Equator. Many years later I would discover that its location is probably inaccurate.

We met a driver from the Hotel Quito taxi pool,very close to our hotel, who advertised day and multiple-night tours. His name was Hugo. He took us along the winding, narrow Pan-American Highway to the market in Otavalo, north of Quito (and ancestral home to these folks, who today sell their products all over the world) and as well as the leather-making town of Cotacachi.

Sometime in late June, my aunt Dorothy from Temple, Texas came down to stay with us and to experience Ecuador for herself. Hugo crammed all of us into his taxi and took us to the jungle, by way of the Hacienda la Cienega - an amazing Spanish colonial plantation turned into a hotel - and the delightful town of Baños, with its waterfalls and volcanic baths.

Somewhere outside of Baños, along the highway that parallels the steep valley of the Rio Pastaza, the roadway's asphalt was replaced by gravel and Hugo said "adiós, civilización." We has reached "La Selva" - Ecuador's outback-esque Amazonian jungle.

We got to the Rio Napo, parked the taxi, and loaded ourselves into a motorized water canoe that took us to a hotel downstream that could only be accessed by boat. On the way there, Hugo warned us about "The Monkey" that lived at the hotel and apparently had a habit of biting people.

We got to the hotel and got out of the canoe. I walked around the hotel grounds, deep within the jungle. Everything was lush and green. There were butterflies everywhere. There were colorful birds flying around. There were termites crawling back and forth between trees in termite tubes. There was a black and brown spider monkey that appeared out of nowhere, ambled right up to me and, before I could do anything, crawled up my legs and torso, wrapped itself around my shoulders, and sat atop my head. Was this The Monkey that bit people? I was petrified. I didn't know what to do.

Fortunately, Hugo appeared. I thought he would help me get the curious animal off my head. But he just smiled. "Be careful, Tommy, that is The Monkey," he said as he walked past me.

The Monkey's name was Ramón, and he actually became my friend while we were in the jungle. He would wrap his prehensile tail around my wrist and lead me all around the hotel's grounds. He'd do the same to my brother. Ramón was fascinating and protective, always looming over us from the trees as my brother and I walked through the jungle.

He never bit either of us.

My brother and I found a creek with a large vine hanging above it. We discovered we could swing from the vine, Tarzan-style, and drop ourselves right into the middle of the creek. It was fun.

In the jungle, it was Hugo's turn to have intestinal discomfort; I guess even native Ecuadorians can fall victim to the myriad bacteria that grows down there. He begged us not to tell "El Brujo" - the native witchdoctor that we were going to visit on a jungle tour one day - that he was sick, because he was very skeptical of the witchdoctor's "cures."

We didn't tell the witchdoctor when we met him. He found out about Hugo's ailment anyway. He made Hugo drink a nasty, gawd-awful potion to remedy his gastrointestinal distress. Hugo quickly felt better.

After a few fascinating days at the hotel in the middle of the jungle, we made our way back to civilization: first by river canoe, then by Hugo's taxi, and eventually the gravel on the roads gave way to actual asphalt again.

When we got back to our hotel in Quito, the person at the front desk immediately told us that somebody from the coastal town of Manta had been frantically calling and leaving messages, trying to get in touch with Dorothy.

It turned out that when Dorothy had first arrived in Quito a few weeks earlier, she had sent a message to a former student of hers, Maria, just to politely say hello and let her know that she was visiting her country. Dorothy had no expectation of actually meeting Maria.

However, once Maria discovered that her beloved former teacher was in Ecuador, she insisted that all of us come down to Manta to visit. But how to get there?

Ecuatoriana was Ecuador's international airline. TAME (at the time owned by the Ecuadorian Air Force) was Ecuador's domestic airline. Ecuatoriana flew aging 707s; TAME flew aging Lockheed Electra turbo-props. Ecuatoriana might not adhere to a posted schedule; TAME might not adhere to a posted destination. We all went to Quito's airport hoping to get onto a flight that landed at either Manta or the nearby town of Portoviejo (pilot's choice?). We made it onto the 1950s-vintage plane and landed in Manta half an hour later.

While I stood at the airport in Manta, waiting for our luggage to appear and wondering what I was doing there to begin with, somebody tapped me on my shoulder. I turned around to find a young woman, only a few years older than me, who looked vaguely familiar.

"Excuse me, but do you go to HSPVA in Houston?"

I will leave it to statisticians to determine the odds that two people - one a freshman theater major, the other a senior vocal major - from the same small fine-arts magnet high school in Houston, Texas, would somehow end up at the same little airport, in the same coastal city of Ecuador, at the same time in July 1988. I consider it a cool, random encounter. It turned out that Camille was spending the summer volunteering for the Amigos de las Americas program in Ecuador before she went on to college.

We met Maria, and her sons Italo and Renzo, and they took us back to their house in Manta and we spent several days there, eating ceviche and exploring the coast and making friends that I still have to this day. Italo, in fact, would later come to Houston and stay with my family while taking english courses ahead of college; he eventually graduated from the University of Houston.

We flew back to Quito, Dorothy flew back to Temple, dad finished his last course, and in early August, Hugo took us on another journey: this time to Cuenca, Ecuador's third-largest city, located in the southern part of the country.

This time it was my brother's turn to deal with intestinal discomfort. David was not feeling well as we stopped at restaurant in the town of Cañar on our way towards Cuenca. He put his head down on the table and refused to order while the rest of us made our choices off the menu. Hugo ordered the "caldo de pata de gallina." They brought him a bowl of soup with a chicken's talon sticking up out of it. My brother looked up. Hugo picked the chicken foot up out of the bowl and began eating what little bit of meat was on it. My brother's face turned three different shades of green.

The route from Cañar to Cuenca was cool and misty and green and it reminded me of my trip to Ireland just a few years before. Cuenca, likewise, felt uncannily European: is its cool climate, its church spires sprinkled about the skyline, the Spanish Colonial architecture, the city encircled by what seemed to be a wall of mountains... It's a place I truly need to revisit before I die.

One of the highlights of our trip to Cuenca was El Cajas, the national park just outside of town. The park is alpine in nature; there were many llamas there, and as David and I learned, they were not always the world's friendliest animals. We came upon a mother llama and its young offspring, and we walked over to the pair to see if we could pet them. Not a good idea... The mother llama considered us a threat to her baby, and proceeded to jump up on her hind legs and topple David over to the ground. The llama tried to do the same to me, but did not succeed. Hugo warned, "uh-oh, Tommy, la llama se enoja" - the llama is angry - and chased the unfriendly animal away with a stick.

On the way back to Quito, Hugo took us down out of the mountains - I'll never forget reaching the edge of the Andes and looking out over the tops of the clouds bunched up against the mountains, as if we were descending by airplane and not by car - and to the coast of Ecuador, where the roads were straighter and flatter and the trip back to Quito would be quicker.

On the way, we passed coffee and banana plantations. Outside of Santo Domingo we visited some Colorado Indians, which were characterized by their shortly-cut hair dyed with red berries. We painted our faces with some of the berries. Afterwards, we took the long, winding road along the Rio Toachi back up the mountains to Quito, stopping at "El Poder Brutal," a huge face of a devil carved into the side of the mountain, and listening to the new President Borja give his long inaugural speech on the radio. (He and his successor both managed to complete their terms of office; a decade later a series of coups would end this rare period of Ecuadorean political stability.) It was late evening when we finally returned to our hotel.

And it was just a few days later that we returned to home Houston - once again, a day later than planned, thanks to Ecuatoriana. The summertime adventure was over.

I recounted all these stories, and more, to my friend Gwen so many times that she can probably tell them better than I can. At the time, I could only vaguely perceive how transformative that summer had been to me; my "what did you do last summer" story was pretty much "I spent all summer in a little South American country that doesn't even have a McDonald's" and that was that. As time went on, however, I began to realize just how profound an experience that was for me: being immersed in a nation that was both environmentally and culturally diverse; seeing things few Americans got to see  (at the time most American tourists came to Ecuador to see the Galapagos and maybe colonial Quito); visiting bustling markets and opulent 17th-century cathedrals; being invited into large, comfortable homes along the coast as well as destitute rammed-earth huts in the mountains; all while being in transition from childhood to adolescence, where experiences have an outsized effect on one's cognitive growth.

Something about that little nation that kept drawing me back. I returned to Ecuador (by myself) to visit the family in Manta the following summer. Dad was awarded a second Fulbright in 1990, so we spent a second full summer there; revisiting a lot of the same sights and seeing many new ones, including the Galapagos Islands. That summer it was my grandfather's turn to fly down and stay with us for a few weeks. Another solo trip occurred in 1993, when I was in college. My then-girlfriend and I traveled there in 2001. All of these trips have stories of their own.

I haven't been back since. I regret that.

Things have changed a little bit since 1988. Ecuador adopted the US dollar as their currency over a decade ago, so things aren't quite as cheap as they were back when there was the ever-inflating Sucre. Quito has become a trendy travel spot and is even being compared to New York City. As of 2001, it had a real McDonalds. Lori and I went there and I had a Quarter Pounder, just because. Quito is even building a subway now! No more dangerous winding roads in the county, either; Ecuador now has actual freeways.

Ecuatoriana no longer exists, which is probably a good thing. TAME is no longer run by the Ecuadorian military; it flies modern aircraft and serves a variety of domestic and international destinations. Today, if I want to get to Ecuador, I don't have to fly through Miami; I can just go up to Bush Intercontinental and take United's daily non-stop to Quito. It wouldn't surprise me if Southwest started flying to UIO from Hobby in the near future, too.

The family in Manta are friends on Facebook. We talk about getting together sometime. I don't know if Hugo is still around. Every possible permutation of "Hugo Herrera Hotel Quito taxi" I put in the Google search bar or in Facebook turns up nothing. Camille is a successful opera singer in New York City.

Things change, but the summer of 1988 in Ecuador, is something that changed me. And I'll have that experience forever.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Why there isn't an Interstate between Houston and Austin, and why there won't be one anytime soon

In spite of its size and its extensive highway network, Texas is one of only eight states in the union that does not have an Interstate highway directly linking its largest city to its capital city* (that is, in states where those two cities are not one in the same, e.g. Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, etc.). The Austin American Statesman's Ben Wear explains why:
Plans for a national grid of superhighways had been kicking around for at least 20 years before Congress in 1956 managed to pass a landmark bill, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, that funded the final engineering and construction of such a system. President Franklin Roosevelt, according to “The Big Roads,” a history of the interstate system published a few years ago, in the late 1930s sketched out his version of an interstate system from his Oval Office desk.
And the plain fact is that when this routing work was going on, Austin didn’t have the people or the prominence it does now. San Antonio in 1955 had almost 500,000 people, while Austin had 160,000 and virtually no industry to produce the sort of truck traffic that was to be a major user of this cross-country highway system.
San Antonio did.
“That’s where the traffic wanted to go,” said Richard Ridings, a senior vice president with the venerable engineering firm HNTB Corp. The company was deeply involved in the original design of the interstates, said Ridings, who has been working in civil engineering for 55 years. And anyone looking at the big picture back then would have started with the port of Houston and its cargo headed inland.
“They wanted to get that stuff north, and they wanted to get it west and east,” Ridings said. “At the time, Austin was almost an afterthought.”
Since that time, of course, things have changed: San Antonio now has 2.5 million people, but Austin has grown into a considerable metropolis of its own, with 2.1 million inhabitants - larger than the municipalities of San Francisco, Boston, Denver or Washington, DC - and a thriving, tech-focused economy. 

So maybe it's time for TxDOT to consider finally making that Interstate connection between Houston and Austin. The easiest way to do that would be to upgrade either US 290 or State Highway 71 - both of which are already mostly divided highways - into an Interstate, right? After all, there are already a few stretches of Highway 71 - the bypass around La Grange being an example - that appear to have been built to Interstate standards. 

Well, it's actually a lot harder than it sounds:
The U.S. interstate system was essentially built out by 1990, although there have been some additions in the years since. But turning Texas 71 into an interstate between Austin and Columbus, a distance of about 90 miles, would be tremendously expensive and disruptive. 
Interstates have certain standards of curvature and slope that could require some rerouting, but, most of all, interstates are what is known as controlled-access highways. Meaning, no driveways. If you want to get on or off an interstate, you have to take a ramp. 
That means that either no businesses, homes, farms or ranches can connect directly to the highway for miles at a time or, as is the case on Interstate 35 through the heart of the state, there are frontage roads. 
Texas 71, other than in Austin and through Bastrop’s commercial district, has no frontage roads. And it has scads of roads and private drives entering it throughout the other, more rural sections. So to turn it into interstate now would require TxDOT not only to acquire a lot of right of way for what would be a wider highway in many places, but also to pay some property owners for lost access to the road. 
Or, more likely, to build many, many miles of frontage roads. Either way, the cost would be enormous. This isn’t a project that’s going to happen in the foreseeable future.
There's also, of course, the issue of what an Interstate between Houston and Austin would be numbered, because Interstate 12 already exists and Interstate 14 has recently been taken. 

TxDOT's near-term plan, instead, is to upgrade SH 71 at major intersections by creating grade separations, thereby eliminating congestion and delay caused by traffic lights.
Right now, there are just five traffic signals left on Texas 71 between Interstate 35 in South Austin and I-10 in Columbus, all of them between Austin and Bastrop. And TxDOT has engineering plans and money set aside to eliminate four of those lights by adding overpasses over the next four years. The fifth one — at FM 1209 just west of Bastrop — is in the cross hairs as well, but the timing of its removal is less certain, TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy told me.
Speaking as somebody who traveled between Houston and Austin on a regular basis when I was a graduate student in the late '90s, I'm glad that TxDOT finally replaced the interminable gauntlet of traffic lights west of Bastrop with an actual freeway section. More recently, TxDOT has been working on Highway 71 on the east side of Austin, creating overpasses (albeit tolled ones) in the vicinity of Bergstrom Airport that allow motorists to avoid traffic lights. 
TxDOT has set aside $48 million to build overpasses at Ross and Kellam — work set to begin as soon as fall 2019 and be done by summer 2021 — and $52.6 million for overpasses at Tucker Hill and Pope Bend. That second set of projects, TxDOT hopes, will start in fall 2020 and be done by summer 2022. All of this, TxDOT officials caution, could be delayed somewhat by environmental clearance work and acquisition of right of way.
The FM 1209 overpass, TxDOT estimates, would cost an additional $35 million. That money has not been nailed down.
McCoy, by the way, said he would like to make similar progress on U.S. 290, the northern route to Houston, but it has far more traffic signals standing in the way.
So, something like five years from now, a driver might be able to get to and from Houston on Texas 71 without hitting a red light.
That’s assuming, of course, that yet another traffic signal or three aren’t added in the meantime.
Upgrading State Highway 71 (and US 290, for that matter) to an Interstate-standard highway will be a long, slow, piecemeal process, kind of like we're currently seeing with Interstate 69. It may happen one day, but it won't be anytime soon.

* Alaska (no Interstates to begin with, and Juneau is geographically isolated), Florida (requires two Interstates to travel between Tallahassee and Miami), Missouri (Jefferson City is not connected to an Interstate), Montana (requires two Interstates to travel between Helena and Billings), Nevada (Carson City has a relatively new Interstate connection to Reno, but not Las Vegas), North Carolina (requires two Interstates to travel between Raleigh and Charlotte), South Dakota (Pierre is not connected to an Interstate), and, of course, Texas. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Why was the water so clear last weekend?

So I went down to San Luis Pass (located between Galveston Island in Galveston County and Follett's Island in Brazoria County) to do some fishing over the Memorial Day weekend. It wasn't the best fishing trip ever: I caught a keeper black drum, but everything else I pulled up was either a stingray or a hardhead catfish.

The big story wasn't the fishing, though; it was the water. As anybody who's ever been to Galveston or Surfside Beach knows, the surf water in this part of Texas is usually very murky. That's because prevailing Gulf of Mexico currents carry muddy water from the Mississippi, Trinity and San Jacinto Rivers towards Galveston in a counter-clockwise direction.

However, last weekend this was not the case. The water was uncharacteristically clear and blue. I took a few pictures of the water from the Pass, on either side of the toll bridge linking Brazoria and Galveston Counties:

So why the uncharacteristically blue water? The Chronicle explains why:
Dr. Tom Linton, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University-Galveston, has a theory on why the water was so clear over the weekend. 
His theory is that Hurricane Alberto off the coast of Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico helped set up a gyre (a large system of rotating ocean currents) east of the Mississippi that began moving the water in a counter-clockwise direction. Hurricanes can go in a counter-clockwise direction. 
The competing, existing Gulf Stream created a gyre west of the Mississippi moving in a clockwise direction. 
"So you got these two gyres acting like floor sweepers, pulling in water from the west and the east," Linton said. 
Much clearer ocean water from the western side of the Gulf Stream, namely the Corpus Christi area and points south, was brought up and began striking the Galveston beach. It all goes to show that a hurricane in the Gulf no matter how big or small can have a very wide-reaching impact.
The murky water that this part of the coast normally receives might be ugly, but the nutrients it provides are essential for marine life. Which may have been why the fishing wasn't so great this past weekend.

In addition to the clear water, I also got a view of an impressive storm moving over Galveston County on Saturday evening:

All in all, it was an enjoyable Memorial Day weekend at the coast, featuring rarely-seen blue water. Now it's on to summer...

Rockets' quest for a title falls short

The Rockets came within one game of their first trip to the NBA Finals since the 1995 season Monday night, but were able to advance no further. For the second time in four seasons, the Rockets' dream of an NBA championship met its end at the hands of the buzzsaw that is the Golden State Warriors.

There are plenty of reasons as to why the Rockets couldn't make it past the Warriors, in spite of having a franchise-record 65 regular season wins, the top seed in the Western Conference, or home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. They include bad officiating, Chris Paul's injury, playing too few people in a rotation, or their inability to mitigate Golden State's signature third-quarter surges. The Houston Press has the list right here.

But here's the main thing: when you run an offense the lives and dies by the three, you're not going to win when you're hitting only less than 16% on your shots beyond the arc or when you go for a statistically unprecedented stretch of 0-27 from three-point range.

Yes, the Rockets had a great season. They came within a game of advancing to the NBA Finals, and they took the defending NBA champs - one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history - down to the wire. But, considering that the 2017-18 season had all the makings of "the year" for the Rockets, the fact that they didn't the Western Conference, much less an NBA title, can only mean that this season ended in disappointment.

There's nothing left for the Rockets to do now, other than to get ready for next season while they look back and wonder what could have been.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

On frequencies, auditory illusions and mosquito ringtones

If you've spent any time at all on the internet over the past week or so, you've probably seen (and heard) the raging debate about "Laurel vs. Yanny." The audio clip that has spawned countless internet debates is essentially an auditory illusion; whether you hear "Laurel" or "Yanny" (or something in between) depends on how our ears and brains pick up and interpret different frequencies. (For the record, I hear "Laurel.")

And, although it's not based on quite the same auditory dynamic, the differences in ability of people to hear and interpret different frequencies at the heart of the "Laurel vs. Yanny" phenomenon reminded me of a post I wrote exactly a decade ago about "the noises that teenagers hate," i.e. high-frequency sounds that younger people can hear but that older people lose the ability to hear as they age. Which made me wonder: how has my hearing changed in the last ten years? The same website I used to try to hear those high-frequency "mosquito ringtones" (that teenagers put on their phones to alert other students in class without the teachers hearing it) when I wrote my post a decade ago is still available, so I put my ears to the test.

It turns out that I can still hear everything from 8 kHz through 14.1 kHz well. The 14.9 kHz tone just barely comes through, but is still there. With my ear close to my phone's speaker and at full volume, I can also still hear the 15.8 kHz tone that is supposed to be inaudible to anyone over 30; however, it is very faint and it struggles to overcome my background tinnitus. I also *think* I can still just barely perceive the 16.7 kHz tone (that nobody over the age of 24 is supposed to hear) as a very faint piercing feeling in my head, but it might be that I am simply tricking myself into thinking I am hearing it when I push the "play" button. As was the case ten years ago, no tone higher than that is perceptible.

So my hearing might have degraded rather modestly over the past ten years, but I can still pick up some of these high frequencies that most people of my age group are supposedly not able to hear.

I can also hear well enough to know that you "Yanny" people are just insane!

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

A glaring omission

I usually don't pay much attention to clickbait listicles - much less share them - but this list of "The 25 Hardest Teams to Root For" made me chuckle. While I don't disagree with any of the NHL, NBA, MLB or NFL teams on it, it's clearly missing one hard-to-cheer-for professional football franchise.

This list appears to be based on championships (or lack thereof), playoff appearances, overall winning record, and whether the team has relocated. Given their history of futility, the Houston Texans certainly belong on it. They have no conference (much less league) championships, have only made the playoffs four times, and have an all-time regular season record of .429.

My only guess is that they were left off this list because they are relatively new (they're only playing their 17th season this fall), as well as the fact that last fall's disappointing season was due more to a freak rash of injuries (Deshaun Watson, Whitney Mercilus, J.J. Watt, etc.) than anything else.

Another team the probably belongs on this list is the Tennessee Titans. They've won no NFL titles, they check the "relocation" box, and when they were the Houston Oilers they were the very definition of futile.

Another summer is upon us

As both of my regular readers might have guessed, we've entered the annual "blog doldrums" here at Mean Green Cougar Red, which means posting activity is going to be light as we make our way into another miserable summer.

Which begs the question: when does summer really begin in Houston, anyway? Eric Berger ponders that question and comes up with the answer: yesterday.
What constitutes summer in Houston? There is no single definition. The summer equinox runs from June 21 to Sept. 23. Meteorological summer encompasses the months of June, July, and August. Neither of these time frames really capture summer in Houston, however, as it gets hot long before June 21, and stays hot well into September.
Speaking for me personally, summer comes when daytime temperatures are in the 90s, and overnight lows correspondingly warm and muggy. I’m afraid we might just be there, folks. We’ll have several days this week in which high temperatures might hit 90 degrees, beginning as early as today. And from a historical perspective, Houston is right on schedule—the average date of the first 90-degree day at Bush Intercontinental Airport is May 7.
This isn't to say that we won't get any more cold not-as-hot fronts (that will at least reduce humidity, if not overall temperatures) going forward, but it does mean that what has been a remarkably wonderful spring is coming to an end and we need to get ready for our annual dose of miserable heat. We can only hope that another hurricane won't also be on this summer's agenda.

As for my agenda this summer: another trip to Europe! We enjoyed the place we stayed (Schladming, Austria) two years ago so much that my girlfriend and I are going back, this time with my parents. Trips to places we didn't get to see last time - Ljubljana, Slovenia and Graz, Austria being at the top of the list - are also planned. But before we go back to the Austrian Alps, we are taking an Adriatic cruise out of Venice to Croatia and Greece. The Royal Caribbean itinerary stops at places - the Acropolis in Athens, Knossos Palace in Crete - I've spent my entire life wanting to see, and my parents want to see these sights as well, while they're still mobile.

I realize that I never wrote up any blog entries or posted any pictures of the trip two years ago. Hopefully I'll actually do better.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The end of passenger 747 service to Houston

The venerable "jumbo jet" is becoming a much rarer sight at Bush Intercontinental:
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is swapping the iconic Boeing 747 for the newer, more efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner on its Houston-Amsterdam route. 
With the departure of that final 747 Combi, which carries people and cargo, Houston will no longer have a passenger airline regularly flying the 747. 
KLM is just one of many airlines phasing out the double-decker plane. The 747 introduced travelers to wide-body airplanes and helped make flying affordable, but it has lost ground to more fuel-efficient aircraft that can travel farther distances.
Last Friday's flight from Houston to Amsterdam was KLM's last using the 747.

Another service using 747 equipment out of IAH is calling it quits at the end of the week, as well: the petroleum-industry-focused "Houston Express," a scheduled charter service linking Houston to Luanda, Angola, is also ending operations this Friday. The service, operated by Atlas Air on behalf of SonAir, gave Bush Intercontinental the distinction of being the only airport in the United States to offer service to six continents:
On Friday, North American oil company Chevron confirmed that the final Houston Express flight will depart Houston on March 28, about 17 years after the first flight took off. The company cited “financial and commercial difficulties” as reasons for ending the flight. Without this direct connection from Houston, workers will have to go through much longer routings to get to Angola.
Technically, the Houston Express will also be the last regularly scheduled passenger flight operating with a U.S. registered passenger Boeing 747. It is unknown what will happen to the two 747s used for the flight, but they will most likely be returned to their leaser. While there will be no direct connections between Houston and Africa for some time, IAH may regain its title if Angola’s national carrier TAAG Angola Airlines decides to reconnect the cities using one of its 777s in the future.
Cargo and charter services will continue to operate 747 equipment into Bush Intercontinental, and Lufthansa might occasionally use a 747 on its service to and from Frankfurt when an Airbus 380 isn't available. But this is otherwise it as far as regular, scheduled passenger flights out of IAH using the 747. It's just another example of the gradual disappearance of the 747 from American skies.

If you still want to see four-engined widebodies serving Houston, however, you're not out of luck: in addition to the aforementioned Lufthansa A380 that flies the IAH-FRA route, Emirates is returning the A380 to its IAH-DXB service in June.

It bears repeating that the main reason the 747 is disappearing from the skies is because newer two-engined aircraft such as the Boeing Dreamliner are doing things it could never do; for example, the first-ever nonstop flight between Australia and London.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

On autonomous vehicles

Last Sunday, a self-driving car being tested by Uber in Tempe, Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian. In the wake of the fatality - the first-ever fatality involving a autonomous vehicle - Uber (as well as Waymo, Toyota, and other companies) has suspended all road testing of their self-driving vehicles while they investigate the particulars of this incident (including why the self-driving car did not detect - nor its human backup driver see - the pedestrian).

In the long run, this incident won't prevent the eventuality of fully-autonomous vehicles on our streets and highways. However, it is a reminder that these vehicles have a long road ahead, literally and figuratively, before they become a part of our everyday lives. Furthermore, it reinforces the point that, for all their touted benefits, self-driving cars are unlikely to be a perfect solution to all of our traffic-related ills.

SAE International defines six levels of automation for vehicles. Level 0 is no automation; a human driver controls all aspects of steering, accelerating, and braking. Level 1 automation provides "driver assistance" technologies such as adaptive cruise control or parallel parking assist, while more sophisticated driver assistance systems currently available on some vehicles, such as Audi's Traffic Jam Assist or Cadillac's Super Cruise, fall under Level 2.

Level 5 is full automation, wherein a self-driving car controls all aspects of driving, on any road and in any condition, with no human involvement outside of entering a destination (there would be no need for a steering wheel or brake pedal in Level 5 cars). Level 5 automation is the ultimate goal of autonomous vehicle development; Uber, Waymo and other automobile companies are currently testing cars, such as the one involved in last weekend's fatality, with Level 5 autonomy in mind. Level 5 autonomy is also what most people have in mind when they think of "self-driving cars."

Putting aside for a moment any legal, regulatory or public acceptance obstacles to driverless vehicles, the technology itself is still years away from something that can safely operate on any road, in any condition, with no human assistance whatsoever. Testing is currently occurring in designated areas within a handful of cities - such as Tempe - with backup drivers on hand. But this technology is still in its infancy; a tremendous amount of further testing, coding, mapping and validating is required before driverless cars can be deployed nationwide and worldwide. Last weekend's fatality will only slow that process while the cause of the collision is investigated and solutions developed, e.g. improved sensors or rewritten software. It also calls into question the wisdom of using public streets to "beta test" driverless technologies:
To [Arizona State Professor David] King, whose research focuses on the urban impacts of new transportation technologies, the location of the crash—and how it happened—raises red flags about Uber’s approach to road safety. Since Uber arrived in Tempe in March 2017, he’s often seen Uber vehicles testing in that exact spot, charting details of the roadways to perfect the company’s internal maps. This seemed like familiar territory for them. Based on what is known about Uber’s technology, King said, a pedestrian or other foreign object should have been readily detected by the AV. 
“If there is any real-world scenario where it would be seemingly safe to operate in an automated mode, this should have been it,” he said. “Something went seriously wrong.”
Precisely what went wrong may be unlocked by federal and local investigations now underway. Already, though, law enforcement interpreting video footage from the Uber vehicle’s external cameras seem to have placed the blame squarely on the victim: On a multi-lane corridor with scant crosswalks, Herzberg was crossing outside of a crosswalk. 
“The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Sylvia Moir, the chief of Tempe Police Department, told the San Francisco Chronicle. Viewing the videos, “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” she said. 
That video footage has not been made public yet, however, and other observers say it’s too soon to draw conclusions about a situation with no precedent. The fundamental safety promise of autonomous vehicles, after all, is their ability to automatically detect and brake for people, objects, and other vehicles using laser-based LIDAR systems: In darkness and light, they’re supposed to be programmed to drive far more safely than humans. King believes that releasing those videos, as well as the onboard vehicle data, would be a step towards transparency by Uber and law enforcement—as well as a signal to the public that safety is a priority, whether the blame rests on Uber’s software, its employee, or its victim. (Note: since this article has been published, some video has been made available.)
To be fair, in order to ensure they can operate on public streets, it seems necessary to test these vehicles on those same public streets. But it's also fair to note that Uber, which is hemorrhaging money and therefore eager to eliminate human labor costs by getting driverless cars on the road as soon as possible, might not be prioritizing safety in their testing regime.

Sunday's incident aside, it's worth reminding ourselves that a key promise of self-driving cars is that they figure to be much safer than their human-driven counterparts: they won't get drunk, drowsy or distracted, they'll obey traffic regulations, they'll even be able to communicate with each other to avoid collisions. But the technology is not completely safe yet, as last weekend's death sadly showed, and it will only be as safe as we want it to be:
I’m enthusiastic about the potential for autonomous vehicles. Their great promise is that they could be safer than fallible human drivers, who kill 37,000 Americans a year. And I do believe AVs will be safer. They will not drive drunk or distracted, and they will not get overwhelmed by more information to process.
How much safer they are, though, will depend on the humans who design them and make the rules. Their driving style, whether aggressive or timid, is something that will be baked into their programming, based on real-world traffic environments and how traffic laws are enforced. The question is the same as always: Are we programming for a world that’s built for humans, or a world that’s built for cars?
The killing of a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, on Sunday by a self-driving Uber is showing how autonomous vehicle safety might slide from promise to nightmare.
We gain nothing if we merely replace pedestrian (and cyclist) deaths caused by human-driven cars with deaths caused by computer-driven cars. Furthermore, in order for autonomous vehicles to truly achieve their promise, our roads need to be ready for them:
The rise in cyclists and pedestrians in and along our roads has also led to a rise in pedestrian deaths. While total traffic-related fatalities fell 18 percent from 2006 to 2015, pedestrian fatalities rose by 12 percent during that same period. Thanks to air bags and safe car designs, drivers and passengers are better protected in the case of a collision, but pedestrians involved in accidents don’t reap that benefit. And now that they’re sharing our roads in greater numbers, they’re more often involved. Many American roadways are ill-equipped to handle the influx of walkers and bikers trying to share our towns.

If we don’t have roads that prevent human drivers from killing cyclists, how can we hope autonomous vehicles will do a better job? Some propose that a bicycle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-everything sensor network could fix this issue. Everyone and everything, outfitted with sensors, would be detectable (and thus avoidable) by driverless vehicles. But the logistics of distributing and enforcing such a network are staggering. Unfortunately, so are the alternatives—like the idea that we need to rethink the way humans and vehicles interact on our roadways. But that may be necessary before autonomous vehicles can take to the road en masse.

Without a human behind the wheel, we may need to rethink the logistics of our cities, streets, and highways. In a world where driverless cars communicate with one another, there’s no need for streetlights or stop signs—vehicles can maneuver seamlessly around one another in algorithm-fueled choreography. And while we impatiently wait at stops and crosswalks for pedestrians, in an autonomous world, passengers’ attention will be on their mobile devices, their work, or their conversations with other passengers. Such irritating delays for a driver may not be so irritating when the driver becomes the passenger. We could, for example, transform some streets into self-driving minihighways and dedicate others purely to foot and bicycle traffic. With humans out of the equation, the entire design of our transportation grid could be reimagined.

As it stands, bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly intersections are an afterthought—and everyone on the road treats them as such, resulting in avoidable accidents and needless deaths. We need to begin to plan for a world in which our transportation priorities have shifted and safety and efficiency are the primary motivators. Autonomous vehicles can’t be seriously implemented until bike lanes and pedestrian routes in our cities are rethought, but like self-driving-car development itself, it’s going to take time.
The effect that automated vehicles will have on the overall transportation network, furthermore, is still unclear and likely will not be fully understood until well after they are implemented en masse. On one hand, driverless cars could reduce congestion by operating more efficiently and avoiding accidents caused by human error. On the other hand, they could make congestion worse. Fleets of self-driving cars deployed by Uber or Lyft could clog city streets as they circulate, awaiting their next fare. Retail companies could send out hundreds of automated vehicles to serve as “mobile showrooms” that constantly travel around city streets waiting to be dispatched to potential customers. Personal automated vehicles could continually loop around city blocks while they wait for their owners to get coffee or pick up dry-cleaning. Commutes could grow longer as people replace the stress of driving to work with the pleasure of napping to work.

Autonomous vehicle technology, furthermore, will not alter basic roadway geometry; while it might use that roadway more efficiently than human-driven cars, there will still be limits as to the number of cars that can fit on any given lane-mile of roadway. Streets and highways that are clogged today with human-driven vehicles are just as likely to be clogged with computer-driven vehicles tomorrow; driverless cars will not "solve" traffic congestion as long as the same trips are being made. (This is why I am highly skeptical of the argument that autonomous vehicles will make public transit obsolete because everybody rides a bus today will simply summon an on-demand driverless car to take them to their destination in the future. Along densely-traveled corridors or within dense activity centers, there will always be space constraints that will make mass transit, at least during certain times of the day, more efficient in its ability to move people than individual automobiles, whether they be driverless or not.)

The fact is, for all their promise, autonomous vehicles still present a lot of unanswered questions. How do you keep autonomous vehicle systems - be it the computer in the car itself or the communications network that ties all the cars together - from being hacked? What happens if the self-driving software crashes or the communications network goes down while the vehicle is speeding down the road? What do you do about the millions of people - truck drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, chauffeurs - who will become unemployed as their jobs are eventually replaced by automated vehicles? How will land uses change in the era of autonomous vehicles? Will we even need parking lots and garages anymore? What other unanticipated consequences of driverless technology might we be missing?

Citing the many problems that autonomous vehicles still face, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute urges tempered expectations, patience and planning:
I am not suggesting that autonomous vehicles are impossible or worthless, or that planners should ignore their impacts, but there are good reasons to be cautious and skeptical, and to implement public policies that maximize their benefits and minimize their costs.
If my analysis is correct, autonomous vehicles may become commercially available in the 2020s, but will initially be costly and constrained, adding a few thousand dollars in annualized costs, and able to self-drive only on designated highways in good weather, and so will mainly be purchased by affluent, longer-distance motorists. Like most automated systems, autonomous vehicles will often be frustrating. Like automated vehicle navigation systems, they will sometimes choose sub-optimal routes. Like computers, they will sometimes stop unexpectedly, requiring a reboot or expert intervention. Like automated telephone systems and bank machines, they will often be confusing and require extra time and effort to use.
It will probably be the 2030s or 2040s before autonomous vehicles are sufficiently affordable and reliable that most new vehicle buyers will purchase vehicles with self-driving ability, and the 2050s before most vehicle travel is autonomous. This technology will probably contribute to numerous crashes, resulting in modest net safety benefits. For safety sake, they will often travel slower than human-driven cars, leading to traffic delays. Self-driving taxies may become affordable and common in urban centers, but in suburban and rural areas most households will continue to own personal rather than shared vehicles. Autonomous vehicles will not displace the need for walking, cycling, and public transit; on the contrary, efficiency and equity require public policies, such as efficient road pricing and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, to favor sharing and prevent autonomous driving from increasing total vehicle travel, traffic congestion, and energy consumption.
My main conclusion: autonomous vehicles will not reduce the importance of good planning.
Fortunately, we have plenty of time to plan and prepare for driverless technology. Fully-autonomous vehicles are not imminent, as even some of its most enthusiastic proponents realize. Even after these vehicles become sufficiently functional and can be proven to safely to operate in any environment, it will take time for them to work their way into the nation's fleet mix and replace human-driven cars to the point that they become ubiquitous. Perhaps they will revolutionize our lives. And perhaps, when all is said and done, we'll discover that self-driving cars weren't such a big deal after all.

One thing is absolutely certain, however: driverless cars need to be able to realize their promise in regards to safety, whether it be the safety of the passengers in them or the pedestrians and cyclists around them. If it turns out we can't make them safe, then there's no point in having them. Last Sunday's death unfortunately shows that there's a lot of work remaining to be done.